IBM is giving individuals, groups, communities and companies working on open-source software free and unfettered access to innovations covered by 500 of its software patents, the Armonk, N.Y., company said on Tuesday.
The only condition attached is that the open-source software for which the patented innovations are used must meet the Open Source Initiative definition of open-source software, now and in the future.
The patents included in the pledge cover a range of software innovation, including important interoperability features of operating systems and databases, as well as internet, user interface and language processing technologies.
For example, several patents cover dynamic linking processes for operating systems, while another deals with file-export protocols. A list of all the pledged patents can be viewed here (PDF).
Dr. John E. Kelly, IBMs senior vice president for technology and intellectual property, also made clear that this move is not a one-time event. IBM will increasingly use patents to encourage and protect global innovation and interoperability through open standards, he said, and will urge others to follow its lead.
This is believed to be the largest pledge ever of patents of any kind, and represents a major shift in the way IBM manages and deploys its IP (intellectual property) portfolio, according to the company.
IBM said it intends for this pledge to form the basis of an industry-wide "patent commons" in which patents are used to establish a platform for further innovations in areas of broad interest to information technology developers and users.
"Our pledge today is the beginning of a new era in how IBM will manage intellectual property to benefit our partners and clients. Unlike the preceding Industrial Economy, the Innovation Economy requires that intellectual property be deployed for more than just providing the owner with freedom of action and income generation," Kelly said in a statement.
While IP ownership is an essential driver of innovation, technological advances are often dependent on shared knowledge, standards and collaborative innovation, Kelley said.
IBM says that the patents it is opening up to open-source developers will help foster continued innovation as they will not only contribute to open standards, but also to broader interoperability between applications by providing open-source developers with a solid base of innovation they can use and share.
IBM has already been making selected patents available on a royalty-free basis for use in open standards covering software protocols and file formats, company officials said.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office on Tuesday also released its annual list of the top patentees. IBM earned more U.S. patents than any other company for the twelfth consecutive year, with its 3,248 patents beating out the closest competitor by 1,314 patents.
This is the fourth consecutive year IBM has received more than 3,000 U.S. patents and remains the only company to receive more than 2,000 patents in one year, the company said.
Patents and IP are hot button issues. The Free Software Foundation is currently drafting a new GNU GPL (General Public License) for the first time in 13 years. Any changes made to the GPL will need to confront some difficult issues. For example, patent defense clauses will be a big topic of concern for GPL 3, said Eben Moglen, general counsel for the foundation, who is authoring the new license with Richard Stallman, founder of the FSF.
Talks will center on the use of copyrights to retaliate against patent law. "We perceive some difficulty and enormous complexity in the fact that the GPL is a worldwide license and the global law of patents is not uniform," he said.
Microsoft has also angered many in the open-source community by saying that it is not a case of if but when Linux and open-source software developers will be forced to license other vendors intellectual property, regardless of how complicated it may be to execute under the GPL.
"I really think that is inevitable. There has already been a commercialization of open source, which is evident in the increased level of sophistication across their technology stack," David Kaefer, Microsofts director of intellectual property licensing, in Redmond, Wash., recently told eWEEK. "I think in the end, if you are Novell [Inc.] or Red Hat [Inc.], your corporate customers dont want to wait 10 years and get embroiled in something that is uncertain," Kaefer said.